Outrage over the allegations that the US president approved China’s cruel oppression of ethnic Uighurs has been eclipsed by his signing of legislation sanctioning the leadership in Beijing for its treatment of the Muslim minority.
Former US national security adviser John Bolton alleged in a tell-all book leaked to American newspapers on Wednesday that Donald Trump told the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, that building concentration camps to “re-educate” Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province was the right thing to do.
The conversation allegedly took place at the G20 summit in Japan in January 2019, at a juncture when Mr Trump was trying to forge a trade deal with China that he could tout ahead of the 2020 elections.
However, Uighur rights activists said they were more excited and encouraged by Mr Trump’s signing into law, later on Wednesday, landmark legislation targeting Chinese leaders for their treatment of Muslims in the country’s remote and sparsely populated west.
“It’s the result of many years of advocacy with the government in the US,” Zumretay Arkin, spokesperson for the Munich-based World Uighur Conference, told The Independent. “We have pushed for years, and finally it’s adopted.”
Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking and mostly Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in China’s west. Along with other Muslim communities in China, they have for years been subject to what human rights advocates and the United Nations have described as a campaign of ethnic, linguistic and religious discrimination aimed at erasing their identities and forcing them to assimilate into mainstream Chinese culture.
Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been rounded up and placed into “re-education” facilities that amount to concentration camps. According to rights groups and UN investigators, they are often tortured, pressed into forced labour and subjected to daily propaganda extolling the virtues of the majority ethnic Han culture over their own backgrounds. After initially denying the existence of the facilities, China insisted that enrolment at them was voluntary, and that the programme was necessary to contain a violent insurgency.
Mr Trump, who has been accused of anti-Muslim bias since he took over in the Oval Office, has had a tangled relationship with China, which he has alternately reached out to for trade deals and condemned for being a disruptor of American hegemony as well as being responsible for the coronavirus pandemic.
The World Uighur Congress said in a tweet that it was “deeply concerned by the recent allegations by ex-national security advisor John Bolton”, and called on Mr Trump “to immediately address these allegations”.
Given Mr Trump’s overt hostility to ethnic and religious minorities and his track record of fondness for authoritarian leaders and tactics, the allegations in Mr Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, are credible.
But some Uighurs said they would withhold judgement.
“I don’t support Trump and I don’t like him, and I hate any racists and those who mingle trade and political principles,” said Abduweli Ayup, a prominent Uighur linguist and former political prisoner now living in Norway. “We need to have other independent confirmation other than just Bolton.”
The Uighur Human Rights Act of 2020 is the result of years of lobbying and politicking in Washington. It imposes sanctions on individuals and organisations behind human rights abuses against Uighur people, and calls for the monitoring of violations, protection of Uighurs in the US, and Beijing’s attempts to acquire and refine mass surveillance and control technologies.
China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that the US law “rudely interferes with China’s internal affairs”, and called it a “malicious attack” on Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. China will “resolutely hit back and the US will bear the burden of all subsequent consequences” if it does not “correct its mistake”, a statement read
Ms Arkin said the legislation not only protects Uighurs but also serves as a model to rein in China as it becomes an ever more formidable global power. She described Uighurs and China’s Tibetans as the “guinea pigs” of Beijing’s repressive technologies and worldview.
“They’re testing their policies with Uighurs and Tibetans first,” she said. “But they’re exporting these repressive policies and technologies. They’re trying to redefine human rights as a concept. We think that it’s important that countries stand together and don’t let that happen.”